Death Is Our Business

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DENESE SHERVINGTON, M.D., M.P.H., Pres., Institute of Women & Ethnic Studies:

New Orleans is this very complex combination of suffering and joy. Katrina forced us to think a lot about what does it mean to heal? And I think we're having a similar experience with COVID and this pandemic. How do individuals come back from extreme loss, loss of family members, loss of what was normal? How do you find your way back?


New Orleans, the city with the highest death rate in the country. Streets typically vibrant with music and tourists, empty tonight. Meantime, the hospitals are filled and rapidly running out of supplies.

JASMINNE NAVARRE, Director, Client Svces., D.W. Rhodes Funeral Home:

Things were being said about whether you could or couldn’t have a funeral, whether you should or shouldn’t. The real concern was whether or not you came into contact with a live host of COVID-19. And so brass band processions and horse and carriage processions are currently not in play.


The idea of the jazz funeral is actually to help the family. And the journey from the church to the burying ground is a process where you can not only think and reflect, but you have people that are there to support you.

LOUIS CHARBONNET III, CEO, Charbonnet Labat Funeral Home:

We’re a jazz funeral town. It’s hard to tell the family you can’t have a jazz funeral, but we have to.

MAYOR LaTOYA CANTRELL, City of New Orleans:

That is very painful, particularly to a city like the City of New Orleans, how we celebrate life and how we celebrate death.


You know, you say, "Look, there’s a limit. I’m sorry, you can’t come in." People start crying; they get emotional; they get filled up; people who want to say goodbye. But this COVID is a very dangerous thing. You’ve got to be afraid, because we got 12 bodies back there right now, maybe four of them have the COVID. I had the COVID, and then I exposed my wife to it. And a lot of my people on the staff has gotten the COVID. It’s all around us.

STEPHANIE SIMON, Embalmer, D.W. Rhodes Funeral Home:

People talk about first responders. But we in the funeral industry, we are last responders. Even though we deal with death on a daily basis, it’s still hard.

DWIGHT L. McKENNA, M.D., Coroner, Orleans Parish:

No matter how cautious or how safety-minded we were, we’re still on the front line. The nature of our business is risky. We have a job to do. Death is our business.

August 2020


Pull that one further over. Come on. Come on, come on, come on. That's husband and wife.

The COVID is rampant right now. I mean, we still are going up in Louisiana. I know that very well because the death rate is still high.

No. OK, just put that picture back there, then.

No matter what funeral home you talk to in this town, everybody's busy.

Too much. OK, take it out.

What do you say, Mr. John?


Doing all right?


I'm doing fine, bruh. I'm great. I'm great.


I heard you were under the weather for a while.


I had the COVID. I had the COVID in March.


And you’re walking around without a mask, huh?


I got it right here. [laughs]

Put the flowers back further in that corner. Right there. Put that stand back. All right, let's go get the people, then. We'll get the family to come in here, but the siblings are going to go in the front office. Come on, Rev.


At this time, we're going to ask that everyone stand as the family proceeds, and we'll sing.


[sings] Every praise is to our God. Every word of worship with one accord. Every praise, every praise is to our God.

Come on, sing. Sing hallelujah, come on.


You’ve got to feel people's emotion in this business. People have a joke: "Let me feel the funeral director's hands; their hands are very cold." That's not true. I’m almost like a touchy-feely person. You know somebody needs a hug, but because of the pandemic, you can't do that now.


Father, we come to you—


Yeah, we come.


—with our hearts heavy. Lord, we thank you for the opportunity to share Darrylon.


Just as with Katrina, everybody said we're going to bounce back in six months. Well, it was 10 years.


The burden is heavy.


And I think it's going to be the same way with this COVID.


But the yoke is light, Lord.


I just want to thank everybody. I'm Louis Charbonnet. And we were going to let some of you all who are from Atlanta really feel that good New Orleans style of music, but we just couldn't do it with the COVID thing. But tomorrow will be a beautiful celebration at Franklin Avenue, and I want to remind you all, you do not want to be late.

Charbonnet Funeral Home is one of the oldest Black funeral homes in the country. We've been around since 1883. My father made caskets on this very site. Back in the early 1800s, Blacks were buried in barns and horse stalls. We were buried the way we were buried because we couldn't be buried by white funeral homes. And so we started out real early to make sure that we had a proper place to be buried and a proper facility to have a funeral service in. Black funeral homes became a business, and a truly significant business in the Black community.


Within community, Black funeral homes have had an opportunity to transition generational wealth. My great-grandmother Zoe was actually married to Richard Rhodes. She was a seamstress, he was a slave, and together they came and built what was a life here in New Orleans.

Something that has shifted since COVID is our front doors are no longer accessible by the public. We're receiving everyone through our side lobby.

Prior to COVID, we would host a jazz funeral or a horse and carriage procession pretty regularly, with a jazz band and the opportunity for any onlookers to join in the celebration. All of those things have been limited. So under current restrictions, we're not getting bands within the city to play music, to promote a second line amongst the community.

March 9, 2020


The state has confirmed a presumptive positive test for coronavirus in Orleans Parish.


Back in March when things took a significant turn, for me, there were markers. One of my colleagues passed away from COVID. Her passing touched everybody. She was a light within our organization.

Tracey Branch


So for her to pass, people were like, "If it could happen to her, it could happen to me." Everybody knew that they had to do things differently. The significant shift came that following week. The phones started to ring nonstop.


We were seeing our people die daily. It was pretty unbelievable.


Everybody was working seven days a week, and so the toll, it became heavy.


Typically, we maybe do four or five cases a day. During the time at the height of the pandemic, at some point we were doing 12 to 15 cases a day. We had an influx of bodies, so we had to create another space for us to hold our bodies. At times, this room were full with bodies.

It's been a very stressful time. It was like we were playing Russian roulette with our own lives. For a long time, I did not see my family. I didn't see them for like two months, because my life was going to work and taking care of the COVID cases. I did not want to bring that home to my family. We all know of loved ones or family or friends that have died because of COVID-19. And that's been very difficult. [pause] I'm sorry.


Now to some sad news from the music world. Ellis Marsalis, the jazz pianist and patriarch of a musical family, has died. The CBS station in New Orleans says Marsalis passed away after being hospitalized with coronavirus symptoms.


Marsalis was the father of a musical family known all over the world for its contributions to jazz.

REYNOLD VERRET, Ph.D., President, Xavier Univ. of Louisiana:

I knew him as a spectator and appreciator of his music, but we also knew what Ellis had done because of the generation of musicians who were his students. Harry Connick is one. His sons.


He had a battle with cancer. On the one hand we were expecting that his time was soon, but COVID kind of sped things up. He was buried April 4, and we had about 10 people there.


I can only imagine what it would've looked like prior to the pandemic. There would have been a second line and a jazz procession.


The ritual of actually celebrating a life, especially a life like that, is what we do here, and we couldn't.

So many laid to rest, without our tears, or the tolling of the bell. No kaddish, as in Elie Wiesel's Night. Last night, Ellis Marsalis went away, piano keys tug at their locks and rend their robes, and each in their seclusion weep so silently. No second line, no coming home of acolytes, the many musician daughters and sons. None may return to ring the bell, to celebrate, to mourn. In solitude, we remember. In cells of marble or made of simpler things, we weep.


COVID was just taking hold. When it began to spread across the country so rapidly, when the death rate was climbing so very rapidly, it became pretty obvious that this was different. Why? Most viruses are either contagious or deadly. This virus was both contagious and deadly. So now we were dealing with a different kind of disease.

STEPHEN T. JONES, M.D., Family Medicine, Urgent Care Eleven:

What we're seeing is hypertension, diabetes, hyperlipidemia and even obesity in conjunction with coronavirus have led to devastating effects, particularly in minority communities. Coronavirus didn't show us anything we don't already know, right? There's always been health care disparities.


Without a doubt, this pandemic hit the Black community disproportionately. Our city suffered pre-COVID from large disparity gaps as related to health. For example, out of 566 deaths, 410 were Black residents.


Just the lack of resources, access to power and authority over one's life to create the kind of circumstances that optimally one would like with the American Dream, eventually creates weathering, the biologic wearing and tearing on our bodies. But it is highly unlikely that the disproportionate impact of COVID mortality and morbidity in the African-American community is based on genetics.

Initially, the people were trying to say all these underlying conditions. Well, these underlying health conditions are a result of the inequities.


These outcomes are very predictable. I'm not surprised. This is 400 years of creating an environment that was right for this carnage to happen and to overcome the Black community. I think this virus is going to be around with us for a while, and we're going to be suffering the ill effects of it on the human body, the economy, everything.


Everything that was normal about how we used to be has had to change if we want to be safe and survive.


In this business, and particularly now, a funeral director has to think out of the box in order to survive.

Does that look any better?

Black funeral homes have to be very, very conscious. They have to watch their dollars very closely. And they have to be creative. And they've got to be willing to take a chance to do certain things.

You about ready?


[sings] I shall wear a crown. I’m going to put on my robe and tell the story how I made it over, yes Lord. How I made it over, yeah. So I’m gonna put on my robe, soon as I get home.

Thank you. God bless you.


I struggled mightily once I got the news. I mean, I'm talking, I was messed up real bad. My mama loved me and my sister. She loved every single church me—let me tell you all something. We might have to do this again next year on this same day. Do you realize it'd be standing room only? 2020, I don't care about you, but this COVID? S---. Man, it'd be wall-to-wall. It'd be wall-to-wall. We'd have to hug so many people and hear so many different stories of what she meant to everybody. Every single person.


The time that people come to us, they're at their lowest. They're really at the bottom of their wits. Try to bring some levity to a funeral arrangement. Instead of just being all sad, if I can find that one silver lining, it helps so much.

Family, please walk behind! Family, please walk behind.

I want to give my people the best that I can possibly afford to give them. I had to get special authorization to bring the horse and carriages to the church. I had to get super special permission to allow the band to be on church grounds. That funeral was very brief. It was just a little taste of New Orleans. We stayed on the church grounds. And when you go on the street, it becomes a second line. And the second line is not necessarily the immediate participants, it's anybody who's on the street. So we didn't want any of that.

RICHARD ROMAIN, Funeral Dir., D.W. Rhodes Funeral Home:

Every two or three weeks the limitations and the number of people that can attend the funeral is always changing, so we got to keep up with the mayor's and the governor's requests about how many people can attend a funeral in a closed building.


Currently, COVID-19 is in Phase 2. Now indoor gatherings can be 25 people and outdoor gatherings can be 100. But we have a large service coming up, bigger than normal during this pandemic.


Tonight, we are remembering a well-known Mardi Gras Indian queen taken from us too soon. Kim "Cutie" Boutte was gunned down in a double shooting in New Orleans East last night.


Someone opened fire on a crowd outside of an event on Read Boulevard. Boutte was leaving a repast when the gunfire started.


We're having the drive-through visitation. We're also planning for a funeral service and a second line. We are working with the mayor's office, we're working with the city and the family to provide a service that is going to best allow folks to participate in all of the celebration while keeping everyone safe.


Kim Boutte's funeral is going to be very large. I'm saying scary large, because of the pandemic.


We anticipated a flood of people. Outside we have upwards of 1,000 people, but the number allowed in the building is restricted. We committed to 100 seats on the floor for family. Anything above that, we did not promise a seat.


Excuse me. The City of New Orleans is about to do a count. They will not allow us to begin the service until there is a hundred people. That's COVID instructions from the mayor.


We're going to start on this side.


If we can't get a hundred people, these people are going to shut us down, and we will not be honoring my little sister if that happens.


They're going to start the program. You all will go up for your final viewing, OK?




Good morning, family, friends and esteemed guests. At this time, we'll begin celebrating the life and legacy of Big Queen Kim Lynn "Cutie" Boutte.


I'm reading this proclamation on behalf of the mayor, because the mayor allowed us to do this. She allowed us to go over the COVID regulations. We need to be mindful of that. She going to get some backlash, but she believes in the culture of this city. And whereas Kim Lynn Boutte was the Big Queen of the Spirit of Fi Yi Yi and the Mandingo Warriors. I said she was the Big Queen of the Spirit of Fi Yi Yi and the Mandingo Warriors! She was the Big Queen! She was the Big Queen.


Knowing that we were trusted to deliver services that were under restriction—however, given a little bit more leeway—is a huge accomplishment for us. Of course, it's not over yet.

There are 35 Indian tribes that have come. The family, the community, the Indian culture, they are all fluid and moving and no one is standing stationary. Every organization said that we were going to stand up and work together.

I don't believe here in New Orleans we'll ever get to a type of funeral that is not a celebration. Even if it's not a band, if someone is traveling with a boombox, then they've got some second line music. Here, people will find a way to celebrate.


Someone's life, when they have ended their journey through this existence, there's a beautiful way in which the celebration makes it just a little bit better. There's this letting all this pain and suffering go, and I feel that it's clearly an African retention that we've held onto. And I think this is what New Orleans does so beautifully.


Every day I feel like we're seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. And I'm looking forward to the day that we could move around without wearing masks; that we could feel more comfortable greeting our loved ones; that we don't have to be fearful when the phone ring from our family members that someone have passed. I would hate to think that this is our new normal.

In the year since the pandemic began, more than 530,000 people died from COVID-19 in the United States.

At least 73,000 were Black men, women and children.

In New Orleans, 72 percent of those who died were Black, despite being 60 percent of the population.


We've had such injuries directed at our communities, but we have to heal ourselves. We also have to fight for justice, and the two things have to go together. Each generation has had to dream and say there is a possibility, and what Katrina and coronavirus taught us is that we have to continue to believe and imagine freedom and move towards it.

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